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Union members threaten to strike over BNSF’s new attendance policy

Union members threaten to strike over BNSF’s new attendance policy

A photograph of two BNSF locomotives parked in a rail yard.

Members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation (SMART-TD) are considering going on strike at BNSF over an attendance program that they say is overly restrictive and hints of precision scheduled railroading practices.

According to a Thursday release from the two unions, BNSF’s “Hi-Viz” attendance program, which would go into effect on Feb. 1, “repudiates numerous collectively bargained agreements currently in place throughout the BNSF system.” 

The unions describe the policy as a points-based system that penalizes employees for “any time they take off work for practically any reason.” 

The unions say that BNSF (NYSE: BRK.B) has developed the program in order to improve crew availability and remain competitive in the industry, and that BNSF describes the program as incentivizing consistent and reliable attendance.

“BNSF goes on to claim that a reduction in absenteeism will improve predictability of work assignments,” the unions said Thursday. “However, the affected employees and their unions have made clear that they view BNSF’s approach to this issue as a juxtaposition. That is: if the carrier instead focused its efforts on predictable scheduling of assignments and competent management of its furloughed employees, there would be no need to impose such draconian attendance policies.”

BNSF didn’t comment on the details of the new attendance program, but the railroad told FreightWaves in a statement: “BNSF team members drive the railroad’s success and we couldn’t deliver the nation’s goods without our employees. BNSF has not changed its attendance guidelines in more than 20 years. This week, BNSF announced a new system that is designed to provide employees with real-time information and greater flexibility, so they can make informed decisions about their work schedules.”

BNSF continued, “This policy update is consistent with practices across the transportation industry, while helping us safely and efficiently serve our customers and the communities that count on us. We understand that change can be an adjustment, but working together with our employees, we believe we can adapt to meet today’s competitive freight environment.”

As a result of the policy, BLET and SMART-TD said their organizations’ respective BNSF General Committees of Adjustment have permission to begin polling membership on whether to withdraw from service over this dispute. 

If a majority of BLET membership votes in favor of a strike, BLET’s national president and BLET’s general chairman need to approve a date to withdraw from service, per union code. For SMART-TD, union leadership may authorize a strike if the general chairpersons obtain two- thirds majority approval from the local chairpersons, the Thursday release said. 

There are more than 17,000 active members of BLET and SMART-TD at BNSF. BNSF hasn’t said publicly whether it has adopted precision scheduled railroading (PSR), an operational model adopted by all the other Class I railroads.

In Thursday’s joint statement, BLET National President Dennis Pierce and SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson said, “Our members have simply had enough of the treatment they are enduring from the BNSF Railway. The Company’s half-baked attempt to characterize this policy as an ‘improvement’ and an ‘incentive’ is nothing short of disingenuous, and outright insulting.”

“Although BNSF will not admit it, it has implemented so-called Precision Scheduled Railroading and is attempting to do more with less by intimidating our members, under threat of discipline and/or termination, into working additional shifts while they continue to furlough junior employees,” they continued. “Our members have worked tirelessly to keep goods moving during a global pandemic, but the railroad is once again placing monetary profits over people to appease shareholders and Wall Street. Our membership is tired, frustrated and fed up with the treatment they continue to receive.”

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14 January 2022, 17:15